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Feeling Misquoted? Weblogs, Transcripts Let the Reader Decide

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Bush, Wolfowitz quotes get some context

Journalism is an imperfect art. Take away the reporter's personal bias, political ideology, geographical orientation, upbringing, mood, and hangover -- and you still have potential problems. Like the recording of an interview. Record it on tape? Take notes only? Get it via e-mail? Despite all these efforts, journalists still get quotes wrong, editors sometimes chop them up into mincemeat, and interviewees get angry.

Not to worry. We are now ushering in the era of the Internet in general -- and blogosphere in particular -- as quote checkers and quote debaters. A recent abridged quote of President Bush by Maureen Dowd of The New York Times got her into hot water, as Weblogs and conservative pundits piled on. Her Bush quote: "Al Qaeda is on the run. That group of terrorists who attacked our country is slowly but surely being decimated. . . .They're not a problem anymore." The full quote included these lines where the ellipsis was: "Right now, about half of all the top Al Qaeda operatives are either jailed or dead. In either case, they're not a problem anymore."

To Dowd, Bush was saying Al Qaeda was no longer a problem. To others, Bush was saying that the terrorists killed or in jail were not a problem anymore. Duh. Coming on the heels of the Jayson Blair scandal, this Dada-esque quote caused concern for Times reader Robert Cox, who e-mailed the paper and went through voicemail hell to get little help from the staff. "I couldn't believe the hypocrisy of people at the paper saying they were disappointed about readers not alerting The Times to errors [by Blair], and then they won't acknowledge this problem [with Dowd]," he told me. (The Times and Dowd did not return my queries.)

Cox found Bush's full quote on the White House Web site, and decided to go around The Times, sending his findings to Times Watch.  The story ricocheted from there, prompting a Texas paper to drop Dowd's May 14 column, and brought various corrections by newspapers and others who ran the syndicated column. The Times hasn't said much about the controversy, and Dowd herself simply gave the full quote in a later column.

Cox, an Internet entrepreneur in New Rochelle, NY, decided to start a Weblog himself on the subject, and is developing a site called The National Debate, giving background on TV personalities. He hopes to build a kind of Zagat's Guide to pundits, giving pertinent personal info on talking heads. "I realized in this case that I could get more action by going around these guys at The Times," Cox said. "This was an opportunity to test how much this works."

Quote fixing is not a sport confined to print media. The Volokh Conspiracy Weblog has been running the full context of Slate's Bushism of the Day, a quote that usually makes the president look silly. In this case, Slate has even made a book out of the quotes of our often tongue-tied president. But why would journalists abridge quotes? Is it bias? Space considerations?

"It's not a liberal or conservative bias -- the biggest media bias is in favor of conflict," says Weblogger Pejman Yousefzadeh, an attorney in Orange County, CA. "Journalists have to create a story with some drama. They have to sell papers."

Wolfing down Wolfy

Still, Yousefzadeh finds a liberal media bias in the case of Vanity Fair's Sam Tannenhaus slimming down quotes from Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz. The sensational quote was from Wolfowitz describing why the U.S. went to war in Iraq: "For bureaucratic reasons we settled on one issue, weapons of mass destruction, because it was the one reason everyone could agree on." Yousefzadeh and others pulled up the full transcript from the Department of Defense site, and saw that Wolfowitz actually listed a number of other reasons for entering the war.

In this case, you have spin coming from Wolfowitz, being spun by Tannenhaus, then spun back by conservatives and the Department of Defense online -- and then being spun one more time by liberal journo/blogger Josh Marshall at Talkingpointsmemo.com. Makes your head spin, no? After reading the whole Vanity Fair article and the Pentagon transcript, Marshall found quotes in the story that weren't anywhere in the transcript. The Pentagon told him that Tannenhaus must have gotten those quotes from another Wolfowitz interview. But Vanity Fair said it was indeed from their interview. "If that's true, why isn't it anywhere in the Pentagon's transcript?" Marshall asks.

Bryan Whitman, the deputy spokesman for the Department of Defense, maintains that nothing is taken out of transcripts for political reasons. "It's truth
in advertising," he told me. "There are rare occasions where something was off the record and is deleted, but we note that in the transcript. Part of my job is to correct the record if a journalist gets it wrong. With Vanity Fair, it was the marketing of the story more than the reporter. They ran a press release with a selective portion quoted to profit their thesis--then it was picked up by other news organizations."

Wolfowitz seems to be a particular target for quote manipulation, if you believe the bloggers. The Guardian recently ran a report under the headline: "Wolfowitz: Iraq war was about oil." But the Belgravia Dispatch blog quickly found that this was not what Wolfowitz was saying at all, with the full quote being: "The primary difference between North Korea and Iraq is that we had virtually no economic options in Iraq because the country floats on a sea of oil."

A Department of Defense  transcript again came in handy, but not everyone believes that the government is releasing totally unedited transcripts. Brendan Nyhan, of the excellent Spinsanity site, helped attract attention to the Dowd misquote. He e-mailed me, saying "posting full transcripts of interviews and briefings online is a great way for the administration to give the press and public a fuller picture of what was said, and sometimes is effective at putting quotes in context ...[But] in several cases, White House transcripts have omitted or corrected various misstatements from the president and spokesman Ari Fleischer, so the transcripts that are released are not necessarily unimpeachable."

An imperfect system, for sure. But as for the growing number of misquotes and misinterpreted quotes, you have to wonder if the Blair scandal paired with the Internet is bringing out overzealousness among bloggers. Or are journalists just getting overly sloppy? Uber-blogger Glenn Reynolds sees the emergence of online group fact-checking in a parallel to Russia's post-Soviet glasnost. "People are appalled, saying it's the decline of journalism," he told me. "But it's the same as when Russia started reporting about plane crashes and everyone thought they were just suddenly happening. It was really just the first time people could read about them."

So perhaps journalists, playing Wizard of Oz for so many years behind the veil of assorted editors, fact-checkers and media executives, are now feeling a bit naked out in the open. It doesn't help that media companies have cut fact-checking down to the bone (if it exists at all). With the Net and bloggers breathing down their necks, journalists will just have to try harder, especially when it comes to quotes.

[Note: All quotes in this story were run by the quoted parties before posting. Imagine that.]

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Related Links
Belgravia Dispatch
DefenseLink: Deputy Secretary Wolfowitz Interview with Sam Tannenhaus, Vanity Fair
Guardian: Wolfowitz: Iraq war was about oil
InstaPundit
Josh Marshall: Remember That Transcript
Pejmanesque: Much Ado About Nothing
Slate's Complete Bushisms
Spinsanity
The National Debate
The New York Times: Osama's Offspring
The Volokh Conspiracy Weblog on Bushisms
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